Commentary: Exposing The Radical Archaeologists

By Steven Vincent

No one likes a bully, especially one who combines relentless attacks with a moral self-righteousness that disguises his or her true motives. But that often characterizes the attitudes and rhetoric adopted by many people who oppose the international trade in antiquities and archaeological artefacts. For years, a loose federation of radical archaeologists and officials and supporters of culturally rich `source' nations have chastised dealers and collectors of ancient objects, portraying them as greedy plunderers mounting a global network to loot such nations as Guatemala, Mexico, Turkey, Egypt and even Canada and Italy. They regularly liken dealers to drug traffickers, claiming that the trade rakes in over US$5 billion a year in illicit profits (in fact, estimates place the entire antiquities business only at around US$200 million annually), and strive to defame antiquities collecting with the red letter of political incorrectness. Or, as one archaeologist once told me, `we want to make buying and selling ancient objects as socially unacceptable as smoking cigarettes, wearing fur or eating an endangered species'. Like everyone else, I am against looting (is anyone for looting?), but I bridle at these efforts to use shame and moral opprobrium to suppress, if not eliminate, a perfectly legal business and the passionate pursuit of many well-intentioned individuals. And I bristle at attempts to regulate the trade through an ever-increasing web of bilateral agreements, emergency restrictions, court rulings and international treaties, none of which are directly accountable to the democratic process. As a firm believer in the mission of museums to introduce and educate the public in the glories of human civilization, I worry that this attack on the antiquities trade imperils the ability of cultural institutions to build, increase and improve their collections. Call me a heretic, but I accept the trade's argument that an open antiquities market can actually preserve objects from looters. Most of all, I dislike seeing people demonizing others, and have to wonder what is behind this drumbeat of criticism levelled at antiquities collectors and dealers? When it comes to the governments of source countries, the answer seems fairly straightforward: because the trade is largely responsible for acts of pillage in their countries, regulation of the trade can help protect their endangered cultural sites. But is that the entire story? Every government knows that one sure way to curry favour with its populace is to appear to defend the nation's cultural patrimony from the rich and rapacious, especially if the antiquities trade serves American collectors. As in so many other areas of international discourse, a dash of class warfare mixed with anti-Americanism reaps large political benefits. More importantly, by blaming the market, source nations can divert attention from the real culprits responsible for looting: themselves. In order to `stand up' to rich market countries, source nations such as Turkey, Mexico, Egypt and Greece have adopted highly restrictive or so-called `retentionist' export policies, claiming that certain types of antiquities are state property, forbidding any trade in those items. But while this may play well on the `street', it wreaks havoc in the market and further jeopardizes a nation's cultural patrimony. Nations like Egypt have huge warehouses packed with thousands of uncatalogued objects which are rotting away. The short supply and high demand for these artefacts creates a black market, which in turn leads to more pillage and plunder. As one dealer put it to me several years ago: `Clandestine excavations are due to draconian export laws'. But if the anti-trade attitude of source nations isn't hard to understand, how can the animosity of many archaeologists especially those associated with Boston University's Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) be explained? Simple, the academics tell us: when looters rip items from their archaeological sites, they remove pieces from their historical `context', and destroy much of their informative value. Curtail the trade, stem the international tide of looting and you will increase scientific knowledge of human history. Perhaps. But one should also consider, as do more cynically minded observers, that besides a traditional propensity of Boston-based intellectuals to want to save the world, archaeologists who are actually involved in fieldwork are frequently beholden to foreign governments for allowing them to dig in their countries. In order to receive the necessary permits and licences, and enjoy crucial social and academic contacts, they and their colleagues must support, or at least appear not to challenge, the retentionist policies of host governments. In other words, few archaeologists are going to defend the right of collectors to possess unprovenanced Egyptian antiquities and possibly risk alienating government ministers in Cairo. They know what side their potsherd is painted on. Archaeologists deny that their attitudes are influenced by such narrow considerations, but it is interesting to note that while they raise a hue and cry over looting in Central America, Africa and the Mediterranean, they are largely silent when it comes to China, another country also plagued by pillage, thievery and the sale of unprovenanced material. Why? Unlike other source nations, Beijing seems less interested in demanding that market nations curtail their desire for Chinese material, feeling, in part, that such a request would constitute a loss of face. Moreover, Western collectors tend to prefer tomb objects, like Tang and Han dynasty material, which Chinese collectors traditionally eschew - and there is the involvement of the government itself, particularly the People's Liberation Army, in the smuggling trade. But perhaps the main reason that Western archaeologists do not hurl imprecations at the market for Chinese material is that they are not generally allowed to work in China. No digs, no need for excavation permits and other bureaucratic licences, ergo, little public concern on the part of the AIA bien pensants for Chinese cultural sites. Even when countless antiquities and archaeological artefacts will be destroyed by the flooding of sites below the Three Gorges Dam. (The same questions about the consistency of the archaeologist's anti-trade fervour can also be raised with Afghanistan: there, the Taliban were destroying antiquities long before the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas without archaeologists raising half the fuss they have about the supposed looting of tribal artefacts from Canada.) It would be facetious, of course, to contend that radical archaeologists despise the trade solely because they want to secure excavation permits from source nations. Still, it does seem true that many of these zealous world-improvers share with foreign critics of the trade a kind of reflexive anti-Americanism (and, to a lesser extent, anti-European bias). But if for source-country officials this is pragmatic domestic politics, for archaeologists it seems more a symptom of knee-jerk leftism and recidivist anti-capitalist sentiment left over from the 1960s and 1970s. Remember when championing the cause of Third World nations put one in the very vanguard of international progressivism? I don't. But Boston's crusading academics apparently do. Lately, however, I've come to wonder if there isn't a deeper phenomenon at work here, a deformation professional. In numerous interviews with radical archaeologists, I've detected a kind of aesthetic tone-deafness. In their concentration on an object's information value, they often strike me as people who discover an old record and become very excited about the age, condition and cultural context of the vinyl, but never put it on a turntable to hear the music. This is a pity, for antiquities, like all aesthetic objects, have their own voice, their own song, that stretches across time to connect the past with the present. To hear that music is to transcend, if temporarily, the limitations of one's particular culture and history to access a larger definition of humanity. To remain deaf to that song is to remain, in some small degree, incomplete. And we know what people who feel incomplete sometimes do. They do not rest until everyone else is prevented from enjoying the pleasures they are denied, and by diminishing the world, fill the emptiness within them.